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Posts Tagged ‘guild wars’

I’ve been playing Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance lately.  Silly name aside (get it, KH:DDD or KH:3D ’cause it’s on the Nintendo 3DS?  Hur hur), it’s a pretty sweet game, building on Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, weaving in the other tangential Kingdom Hearts games that have been released.  They are finally moving the Sora narrative forward instead of navel-gazing and weaving backstories.  It’s technically excellent, with fantastic visuals that rival the original (on the Playstation 2) and some decent use of the 3DS 3D feature.  It’s not necessary to play it in 3D (games that require the 3D would bug me), but the effect is great for some of the storytelling bits, setting the scene nicely.

So, KH nerdfanning aside (I do love the games), what strikes me most is the sheer fun of moving around in the game.  The KH games have always been “action RPGs”, but this newest iteration has the characters zooming around the landscape, performing impossible air dashes, jumps and attacks that are just… fun.  I’ve had similar fun just moving around in the Prince of Persia games.  KH:3D lacks some of the elegance of the ‘Prince and the fluid athleticism of almost-plausible Parkour, but it makes up for it in speed and flexibility.  I can use Sora and Riku’s “Flowmotion” abilities to ping-pong around a level or even scale a huge cliff in a few crazy jumps.

Here, I can admit that I’d probably love the Assassin’s Creed games, and their focus on Parkourish motion and exploring rooftops.  They are M-rated, though, and I just don’t play M-rated games.  It’s a personal choice that does cut me off from some games I suspect I’d really like, like the AC games, Mass Effect, The Secret World and BioShock, but that’s just one of my lines in the sand.  It’s not a commentary on the potentially great games they are, just that there are some things I don’t want in my entertainment.  Too much “coffee in the brownies”, as it were.  That’s also not to denigrate any players who like those games or those developers who make them.  I’m just a picky consumer.

Anyway, with the fun of Flowmotion rattling around in my head, I look at this Guild Wars 2 thing, with its respect for the Explorer mindset that I’m so deeply infused with, and, well… I kinda wish more MMOs would experiment with Parkour and new ways of getting around their game spaces.  Yes, I hear TERA has some sort of climbing system, but that’s rudimentary compared to what I’m thinking about.  I look at the ruins of Ascalon and think “I’d love to just climb around and go all monkeyish on it (Charrish, whatever)”.  And yes, I love flying in MMOs, but climbing around like a superagile simean Spider-man is just… different.  I hear City of Heroes has some pretty great movement options, too… maybe I should check those out before the game is shuttered forever.

So yes, I look at places in games and think “how can I get there?”  I love Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City for the same reason; I can just go explore and climb around the place.  I wish we had more of that sort of flexibility, especially in the MMO space.  Developers are making these beautiful worlds… I want to go explore them.

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I’m not a fan of PvP (Player vs. Player combat) as found in most MMOs.  The prevailing DIKU DNA, manifested in levels, gear and ganking, just doesn’t provide the level playing field that I prefer when it comes to pitting my playing skills against those of another human.

I loved Street Fighter and other assorted fighters when I was in high school.  SF2 really hooked me, and I thoroughly enjoyed several derivative games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, SFAlpha, Killer Instinct, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, DarkstalkersSoul Edge, and their variants.  Mortal Kombat is too exhibitive for my taste, but for a while there, there were a lot of good fighter games floating around, so there was no dearth of options.  The most expensive game I ever purchased was the SNES cartridge of SF2Turbo ($70 at the time, stupidly expensive, but still a ton of fun).  My friends and I spent a lot of time and money in arcades and at home with fighting games, a not uncommon thing for teens of the 90s.

My skills were never such that I could play in a tournament, but I did hold my own against most arcade players, and won far more often than I lost.  It was very satisfying to play in a hard-fought match and come out on top.  Steamrolling new players wasn’t much fun, and I’d often take it easy on them reflexively.  I like to win, but I like it to be an honest win that requires good play on my part.  Perhaps I was doing a Darwinian disservice to those noobs by taking it easy on them, but I tried to always have fun and try to let the other player have fun too.  It seemed to me to be a better way to spend my time.  Constantly losing to a better player is only fun if you’re learning something  (and if they aren’t a jerk).  Frustration isn’t fun.

The best part of these fighting games was the intricate balancing jobs they did, working with disparate characters and playstyles.  Some games were better balanced than others, to be sure, but on the whole, success in fighting games when playing against other players usually boiled down to player skill.  This made successes sweeter and failures more instructive.  It was also a lot of fun.

Dave Sirlin has made a bit of a career out of writing about SF games and fighting games in general, and he wrote a great article some time ago about how World of Warcraft teaches the wrong lessons.  Everything Sirlin writes is filtered through his SF background and his “Play to Win” ethos, so it’s not going to be a set of assertions that works for everyone, but it’s a solid read, and really strikes at the heart of what I don’t like in MMO PvP.

One of his memorable quips is the suggestion of a “level 60 Chun-li” and the absurdity that such an image presents.  It’s silly to think that player time investment in building a character would outweigh player skill in the fighting game scene, yet it’s precisely that paradigm that drives PvP in most MMOs.  This is why open world PvP inevitably degenerates into a cycle of bullying and “ganking“; players aren’t looking for a fair fight, they are looking to win, or worse, to give grief to other players.  A game system where time investment brings more powerful characters in the form of higher levels and/or better gear doesn’t offer much in the way of a fair fight.  (Notably, it also causes problems even when you’re not playing against other players… there are problems playing with other players against the computer.  Levels do weird things sometimes.)

I might note that a very narrow power band might make for tolerable PvP, of course.  Guild Wars gets close to this.  World of Warcraft, with its endgame characters being orders of magnitude more powerful than new characters, is a bit different.  It shouldn’t take 300 characters to kill one foe.  (Sadly, the video has been lost on that one, and the 300 weren’t even enough, but still… the power of a end game character is absurd compared to a new character.)  Maybe that makes for good fantasy power trips if you’re the powerful one (and that was a Player vs. Environment contest), but it’s awful for PvP.  Puzzle Pirates has a very narrow power band, and the vast bulk of the game is based on player skill.  This is a big part of why I still consider it to be my MMO home.  It just feels more like my skill matters, rather than my time investment.

I want a level playing field for PvP contests.  If I fail, it should be because I wasn’t good enough.  If I win, it should be because I played well.  It’s all about player skill.

I don’t see that in most MMOs, which is one of the reasons I’m a dedicated solo Explorer who occasionally indulges in dungeon prowling with other players.  I don’t mind an imbalanced contest against the computer’s monsters (though it’s nice to have a spectrum of challenge), but when I’m playing with other players, I want to know that the contest is one of skill, strategy and tactics, not a barely disguised measurement of time investment.

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That’s the money quote from this article from the Guild Wars 2 devs:

A New Way of Looking at Healing and Death

Why should we debuff you, take away experience, or make you run around for five minutes as a ghost instead of letting you actually play the game? We couldn’t think of a reason. Well, we did actually think of a reason–it just wasn’t a good one. Death penalties make death in-game a more tense experience. It just isn’t fun. We want to get you back into the action (fun) as quickly as possible. Defeat is the penalty; we don’t have to penalize you a second time.

(emphasis mine)

Yes, this won’t sit well with everyone.  Neither will the lack of a dedicated healer class.  Or the intentional departure from the holy combat trinity.  But hey, characters can jump this time.

Here are a couple of pages where the ArenaNet guys dig a little more into the issues:

Q&A 1

Q&A 2

As Shamus says, these guys are “walk(ing) off the edge of the map” in the MMO design space.  They are going into “here there be dragons” territory.

I’m looking forward to the journey.

Bonus reading:  Klepsacovic’s excellent article about death and wanting to die. It’s not quite the same thing, but it seems to me that the sentiment is similar; make the game fun to play, rather than having annoying time sinks around the weird sorts of “death” we get in MMOs.

Edited to add:  Also, Rohan’s article on Death Penalties… in the which one commenter fusses about being nigh-invincible in Heirloom gear.  The solution requested?  Epic zones while leveling.

…as if you couldn’t just go somewhere of a higher level, or take off the friggin’ heirloom gear.  Who is it again that is asking for the world on a golden platter?  It’s almost always very easy to make a game harder on yourself, if that’s what you really want.

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What exactly is a “Ranger”, anyway?  One who ranges?  One with a home on the range?  One who rang?

Whatever the case, I’m really looking forward to playing a Ranger in Guild Wars 2.

Is it bad form to want to name my bearLittle John“?  R.I.P.,  Phil Harris.

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Will it blend?

Combine three parts Guild Wars, one part Legend of the Five Rings, and one part Battletech and what pops out?  In this recipe, I’m hoping for a great Episodic Massive Multiplayer Online… game.  (Which should be EMMOG, but “leggo my EMMOG” just doesn’t flow that well.)

Guild Wars has a lot of great features, but the ones I want to emphasize here are the 8-skill limit, easy respecs, and the business model.

Players are stuck with only 8 active skills at one point, but can potentially choose those 8 from hundreds of skills.  This allows for variety and focus in builds and makes choice and specialization important, without gutting customizability.  The easy and free respecs make this limit work, since players can change their skills and even class focus for free in any town.  (Primary and secondary class choices are permanent, but almost everything else can be changed.)  Fairly quick missions and map travel (instant travel to any hub you’ve visited before) allow for short play sessions, and if a skill build isn’t working, it won’t take long until you can shuffle skills to try another idea, or long to get back where you were.

The GW business model is a thing of beauty; you buy the game, you play the game.  No maintenance fees, no subscription, no microtransactions.  There are optional things to buy, sure, but nothing necessary, and still, no subscription.  As long as the servers are up, you can play.  (That link is highly recommended; Shamus pontificates on online activation and server life… relevant for MMOs, as well.)  It’s a lovely throwback to simpler times when gamers and publishers weren’t in a DRM arms race, and subscriptions were for magazines.

There are expansions to the game as well.  These aren’t exactly sequels in an overarching storyline, but more like standalone novels that occur sequentially, set in the same fictional world.  Players can have a rollicking good time in any of the standalone expansions, or play all of them together, cross pollinating and cherry picking the best parts.  It’s like buying ice cream and then buying a chocolate pie.  Either is great alone, but together, they can be more than the sum of their parts.

Legend of the Five Rings is a multiplatform game world celebrating its 15th anniversary.  The tabletop RPG and CCG in the L5R world are both interesting, but it’s the CCG that I want to look at for this recipe, specifically the player-designer interaction.

The L5R collectible card game is much like many others, in that it is comprised of a large collection of cards that were released in different sets.  Players buy various products that have a small semi-random collection of cards selected from given sets.  One product purchase will not give the whole game library, then, but usually, an entry-level “starter” set will give players enough to actually play with.  Other cards from the entire product line add depth and strategies to the game.  Again, you buy it, you can play it, no permission necessary, no logins, no recurring fees.  Buying more products tends to open up gameplay options, but players can have fun with a single purchase and never spend another dime.

So much for the CCG business model, though it should be noted that the semi-random purchases tend to prompt further purchasing, thanks to the unholy fusion of the collector’s gene and the gambling gene.  In practice, people don’t usually stop at the starter… but it’s definitely possible to play the game with the starter alone.  This doesn’t track especially well in MMO design, but it is certainly possible that a publisher could sell in-game skills in “booster” packs, not unlike CCG boosters.  Single skills could even be microtransaction sale items… but that’s not a direction that I’d advocate.  The randomness of the CCG business model really does put off a lot of people, myself included.  (Though I do adore MTG Drafting and Sealed Deck… and GW has experimented with Sealed Deck-type mechanics for PvP… but that’s another article.)

The most interesting thing about L5R for this particular experiment is the way that the game incorporates players in its design.  Characters, lore and events are built at least partially around player choices in tournaments.  Players register in tournaments by swearing fealty to a particular clan in the game.  Their tournament play affects their clan in future expansions of the game.  Devs even plant certain cards in sets to see what players will do, planning stories around what might happen.  These stories then have a significant effect on future card design.  In a very literal way, the players have become important actors within the clan stories, and the interaction between the devs and the players makes for a more immersive sort of gaming experience.  Player choices matter beyond the immediate match.  Factional differences actually mean something.  Your clan matters.

That interplay is what I really want to see in this EMMO recipe.  Player action in aggregate, changing the direction of the game design in future expansions.  To be sure, crafting a CCG is a very different animal from crafting an MMO, but the design ethos of letting player choices matter beyond immediate combat is what I’m getting at.  Those of us who live in the real world tend to leave a stamp of our passing in one way or another, even if it’s on the road less traveled.  The world is changed for our presence and our actions.  An MMO that offers a living world, indelibly changed by its inhabitants, not just the devs, may well be worth exploring.

The L5R game isn’t entirely built on player choices, since the devs have some pretty clear ideas what they would like to do in the game, but it incorporates player choice far more than a typical MMO, what with the “perpetual now” they have to use to make things technically feasible.  An EMMO would by definition be developed in episodes, not unlike L5R sets, to allow for devs to take player choice and do something fun with it between expansions.  Players could play any given chapter of the story, or all of them, and each chapter would have its own “perpetual now”, but the world itself would advance in time in between chapters, and the way it advances would be at least partially influenced by player choices in the previous chapter during the window of time in the “real world” where the devs are working on the next game chapter.  So a player playing chapter 1 might not affect chapter 3.  If you miss the influence window, the game moves on without your input… though you can still reread and play older chapters.  This means devs don’t have to craft a wholly dynamic world, but can still let player actions mean something when the world’s timeline advances.

This is crucial to making this actually feasible, by limiting the scope of the project by limiting what players actually can do, and what devs need to allow them to do.

The Battletech contribution to this particular delicacy is the separation of the pilot and the vehicle, where the vehicle is the main gameplay avatar, but the pilot is the player’s presence in the world.  Separating the two allows for the flexibility we see in EVE, where the player’s character isn’t stuck with a class choice at creation that they are locked into for the life of that character.  If players playing an MMO are playing characters who can switch between ‘Mech weight classes and models between missions, they can tailor their approach to the particular situation they are playing in, rather than find situations that they can shine in with the only hammer they have been given.  This also allows for a separation of gameplay mechanics (combat, specifically) and the political game.  The mercenary life of many MechWarriors is a great place to tinker with the meaning of allegiance and what it means to the interaction between immediate gameplay and long-term citizenship in a game world.

So, add these five key ingredients to a bowl, blend it up with a fine tooth comb, sift out the bugs, cook at 40hrs/week for a few years.  What are we left with?

Things really could go in a few different directions, and the frosting on the cake (the lore and setting) could be any of a couple different flavors.  What I’d hope to see is the following:

  • Player choice drives future development
  • Flexible approaches to mission-based gameplay
  • Bring the player, not the class (whether this means role swapping on the fly or a classless system, either is fine)
  • Episodic content, where time actually moves on, and some stories have a real end
  • Location matters, and allegiance has gameplay ramifications (more than a faction rep grind and unlocking vendors)
  • One-time monetization of chapters (like Guild Wars expansions), and the ability to play any as standalone games or mix and match

I’d wrap these up in a Steampunk-Battletech lore cocktail, m’self, but that’s more a matter of taste than functionality.

What think ye?  What are the best ingredients of an episodic MMO, and how would it be presented?

Oh, and what if this sort of thing (the reclaiming of Gnomeregan) were built on player actions?  At my office, we’ve talked about flow tracking, where devs can take a look at where gamers tend to play and how long they tend to do so, especially where they have problems or memorable moments.  I doubt that Blizzard is unaware of such technology, but who knows if they are using it on WoW.  BBB also suggests that the Trolls could get a capital; what if that were determined by where Troll players have been playing and how long they did?  By aggregate Troll player reputation, either social or faction rep?

There are all sorts of subtle (or gross) ways like that to take player choices into account, whether in aggregate or high profile individual player or guild choices.  Not only could that make the game seem alive, but also make it more interesting.  (Though maybe more addictive, though, which isn’t always the best idea, duly noted by Callan in the Home Town Pride article’s comments.)

Still, it seems like a good way to make the virtual world more interesting, increasing the quality of feedback between players, devs and the world they share.

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Some Guild Wars players like Pre-Searing Ascalon.  So much so, in fact, that there is an entire subculture in the game built around staying in that idyllic time period forever, rather than leaving the digital womb and letting the Charr take over.  See, the Cataclysm, er, Searing changes the face of the world, and there’s no going back.  For some, that’s perfectly fine, and they stay in the part of the game they like, fully embracing the limitations.

As no surprise to anyone, the WoW Cataclysm has some players logging back in to play the Old Azeroth before it’s gone forever.  (Or at least until Blizzard caves in and allows classic servers.)  Dusty over at Of Course I’ll Play It is taking a whirlwind tour of the game as a fresh Human Mage.  (Thus saving me the trouble, incidentally.)  Tobold is off the wagon again, soliciting opinions, and Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires is looking to try a new experience (to him, anyway).  Of course, as night follows day, Syncaine upholds his honor and calls everyone “failbears” for embracing nostalgia (or maybe just for playing WoW, since his internet persona is built around hating the game).

Call it what you want, but there are players who want the “good old days” in these games, and are willing to spend their time and money on them.  I’m idly curious as to how many players actually have “permapre” Guild Wars characters (permanently in the Pre-Searing world), and how that might track with the number of players who have called for “classic” servers in WoW.  Blizzard is certainly loving the attention of tourists, er, former players playing fresh alts (“going, going, gone!” works for hucksters the world over), but it’s a one-time deal for them, as opposed to ArenaNet’s Pre-Searing Ascalon.  As Scott noted a while ago, the parallels are significant (and thus underwhelming on Blizzard’s part).

It will be interesting to see what Blizzard does with this.  Despite apparent protestations that Blizzard will never make “classic” servers, I suspect it’s only a matter of time.  (They never change their policies, right?)  We’ll almost certainly see private servers catering to the nostalgia crowd and running a healthy clientele.

As much as I think Blizzard is right to push the world forward with some potentially radical world shifts, I think they may bet making a bad move omitting their own Pre-Searing crowd.  They have embraced the static Azeroth for too long to not see some backlash from the Old Azeroth lovers.  Time will tell, but I do suspect that Cataclysm isn’t the cure to all that ails Blizzard’s flagship.  It’s a good idea, and I think it will wind up being a good move in the balance, but we’ll see what unintended circumstances are afoot.

Modern MMO design is all about static worlds.  I’ve lamented that more than once.  The Cataclysm is a step toward a more dynamic world (inasmuch as it changes over time, anyway), so I like the idea behind it… but it’s really just swapping one static world for another.  It’s almost the worst of both worlds; it’s still too static to be really interesting as a place to keep playing, but the radical changes to the game world may well annoy those who liked the old world.  (Remember the fuss over the Zombie event?  A lot of people like WoW to stay the way it is, so they can maintain their habitual behaviors.  Changes are exit points.)

I don’t want to be a vulture, another shrill harpy calling for the demise of the Blizzard flagship (which I’m not doing, by the way, cynicism aside)… but I will be keeping an interested eye on the fallout of these changes, if only to learn how to make the most of them in one way or another.  Of course, I’ll be paying keener attention to Guild Wars 2 and Dust 514.  WoW is a big gorilla, but not the only horse in the race, and certainly not the most interesting one.

Edited to add:

What if they did something really weird?  Say, make it so the ten day trials, in addition to their other limitations, were stuck in the Old Azeroth?  To move time forward, players have to buy in.  I could see Blizzard doing that in a hamfisted effort to exclude gold sellers from the New World, and to incentivize upgrading.

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Wizards in Wizard 101 can jump.  It’s actually more of a half-hearted hop, but they respond to the spacebar.

Jumping does absolutely nothing for gameplay.  Your character is just as much on spatial rails as Guild Wars characters who cannot jump.  Neither game lets you jump off cliffs or clamber over small obstacles.  Even a character who jumps in Wizard 101 doesn’t get any sort of “z-axis” benefit for getting around.

So why can they jump?

One of the silliest complaints that I’ve seen about Guild Wars is that their characters can’t jump.  Somehow that matters to some players.  Specifically, those players who come to the game with preconceived notions.  (And then they claim that GW is not an MMO, as if that meant something.)

I submit the notion that such is the reasoning behind letting W101 characters jump.  Some players are expecting video game characters, especially MMO third person characters, to jump when the player hits the spacebar.  No matter that the combat in W101 is radically different from any other MMO, no matter that the theme is aimed squarely at the tween crowd who may not be jaded MMO veterans, no matter that the art direction is more “last gen” than “next gen” and more “Rowling” than “Tolkien”, if those characters don’t JUMP, the “first fifteen minute” impression will somehow be lacking.

W101 jumping is probably not about smart game design.  It has no use in the game if it’s taken in a self-enclosed context.  A player new to MMOs likely won’t care, and if they play for a while, they may indeed question why it’s even an option as jumping obviously does nothing but play an animation.  It is more likely a smart business decision, a bone tossed to MMO veterans (or tourists, if you’d like) so that they can feel more at home when they start to play the game and get around.  Jumping in W101 is more for those players who normally play something else, a hook to hang their virtual hat on, so that they might stay a few critical minutes longer.

So, I ask again:  What evolutionary purpose does the combat trinity serve?  What purpose, levels?  Do you really need raiding?

Some have levied criticism against my somewhat revolutionary design tenets, saying that evolution, not revolution, is the likely way to go when proposing game design.  There is truth to this position, and a large part of it lies in just these sort of vestigial design elements.  People tend to dislike change, and too much, too quickly can be a considerable obstacle.  Sometimes, for non-game design reasons, you may indeed have to include design elements that make no sense.  It’s an unfortunate evolutionary necessity.  (And as has been noted, MMOs aren’t really the best stage for revolutions, for better or worse.  The critical mass and adoption curve concerns pretty much make MMOs evolutionary beasts, rather than revolutionary, to my chagrin.)

At least, if poaching existing customers is important to you, rather than carving out your own “blue ocean” niche.  When I talk about revolutionary game design, I’m not catering to existing WoW addicts or other MMO tourists.  I thought that much was clear, but perhaps it’s still nice to reiterate.

If you are jumping in the “red ocean” shark pool, I simply propose that such choices shouldn’t be made “just because that’s how things are”, but that inclusion of design elements catering to expectations be carefully weighed and considered.  Perhaps they are right for your game, and perhaps they are a waste of dev resources.  Either way, do not design or create anything just because “everyone’s doing it”, or because “everyone expects it”.

You’re playing directly into Blizzard’s hands, and you will be crushed, perhaps without even knowing why.  The established MMO design priesthood has a Vision for How Things Should Be, and steering your game design into their trendsetting mainstream is giving them control over your success.  You can make money as a cheap clone, but it’s a precarious position.

EDITED: In his link over at his place (the AFK trackback link below), Syp corrects me, noting that the word is “vestigial” rather than “vestigal”.  I have no excuse for this oversigt, other than that I’ve seen it both ways in more than one publication.  I thought it was akin to the difference between “color” and “colour”.  An appeal to Webster confirmed the error of my ways, though, so I’ve made the appropriate corrections.  I’ve left the actual article http address alone, though, so as not to break anyone’s links.  It’s an undying testament to my everlasting shame.

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Following up on a comment from Spinks over in the Dual Wield Healing comments, I’ve wondered for a while why “players LOVE classes”.  I suspect there are a handful of reasons, and I’d love to hear what some of you think.  I’m not really disputing that assertion, since I’ve seen plenty of evidence thereof, but I am always questioning why that might be, and if there’s an alternate way (or three) to scratch the underlying psychological itches.  While thinking a bit about those itches, I’ve been thinking of other ways to approach the scratching.

One game that I’ve looked to for good ideas is Final Fantasy Tactics.  FFT has character “Jobs” that function much like classes:  The characters have a core Job that defines their gear permissions (weapons and armor, anyway) and their primary combat abilities.  Soldiers are melee fighters, Black Mages are ranged magic cannons, etc.  Characters can learn abilities from their active “main” Job, eventually Mastering the Job.  They can also use skills they have learned from other Jobs to customize their approach.

Overall, I like FFT’s system, as it allows you to build up a character with a wide variety of abilities that cross-pollinate and synergize, but filters them through the ability to only use a handful at a time.  It’s a nice compromise between learning everything and making tactically relevant limited choices.  Players can make characters specialists or generalists, and anything in between.  This works largely because you tend to field a handful of units in any given skirmish, rather than just a single character.  You can build a team that works well as a whole, rather than just try to do everything yourself.

Battletech works in a similar fashion.  There are several different ‘Mech chassis designs, and several weapons to put in those ‘Mechs.  Players are encouraged to customize their machines by swapping weapons, armor, heat sinks and such, trying to optimize their machine (or team of ‘Mechs in some iterations of the IP) for how they play.  Certainly, there are “stock” configurations of the machines, but half of the fun of the Battletech universe is tinkering with the delicate balance of heat, ballistics, energy weapons, range, mobility, size, and half a dozen other aspects, trying to build the most powerful ‘Mech for its weight.  The stock designs are not usually optimized for greatest potential, which I suspect was intentionally done to give an impetus to tinker, and a reward for those who master the tuning system.

The rough analogue to MMO class design is the Battletech ‘Mech chassis, and the “spec” for a class (minor tweaks to how the class plays) are the loadout of the ‘Mech.  Of course, a MechWarrior need not be tied to a single Mech for his career, which is where the Battletech variability wins out over a class design; it’s like the ability to change your class (chassis) at a whim (or limited by experience/story permissions/bankroll, whatever), allowing for a much greater gameplay variety over the course of a single character’s “life”.  This is also where FFT shines; it allows a single character to change their class/spec/loadout often and completely.

I really like this sort of customizability, as I love the freedom it offers, and I can get more invested in my characters since they really are mine.  Their progress is dictated by my choice, and ultimately, those choices affect how I approach the game as a whole.

Still, that depth does put off some people.  I suspect that it would similarly put off people in MMOs who LOVE their class and can’t imagine playing anything different.  It’s a lot to keep track of, and some people don’t want to bother with learning that much.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

*Quick tangent… I also see class distinctions as yet another way to artificially extend playtime, since you can’t take an existing character and just change their class like you would a Job in FFT.  You must start a whole new character and grind through the levels.  The ability to change your class completely in an MMO doesn’t rob you of identity any more than the ability to change your spec or gear.  It’s your character, and you can always just stick with one class, even if there are options to change.  When there are no options, though, the player interested in exploration of game mechanics is unduly forced to jump through altitis and grind hoops.*

One of the game designs that I’ve toyed with in the last few years is a Tactics-esque game that has a FFT/BT level of depth for character customization, but has what I’m calling Autopilot Character Development.  For those who don’t want to make those choices of how to build a character, there would be “templates” that could be assigned to a unit, automating that progress, allowing the player to just focus on the tactics and strategy inherent in a larger campaign/storyline.

For example, a unit might be given the Scout Template, which would automatically assign them to the Scout class for a while, as it learns some Scouting abilities, then later, assign it to a Ninja class where it can learn some greater evasion and attack abilities.  At any point, the player can turn off the Template and take control of the progression, but if they just can’t be bothered with the minutae inherent in the system, the Autopilot lets them get on with playing the upper-level game.  (Here “upper-level” meaning higher concepts, like tactics and strategy, not high unit level.)

Put another way, this sort of Template system could be overlaid on an open skill system to create a loose sort of “streamlined” class-based system.  UO could become Diablo, as it were.  The key here is that you would always have the option to go back and take the reins, mixing and matching to make your Scout dabble in magic or your Barbarian toy with bows.  This, of course, means that you would also be able to change pretty much everything about the character, from the most basic stats (the prototypical SRT, DEX, whatever) to skill levels to combat skillset (a limited set of usable abilities, like the FFT system).

Is it a lot to keep track of?  Of course it is.  Is it a lot to dig into and potentially have fun with?  If done well, definitely.  Is it good design?  I think so, largely because of the experience I’ve had with games.  (Of course, this mostly applies to those games that require a huge investment of time and character building.  Team Fortress 2 and Smash Bros. work because each round of playing with a class only takes a few minutes.  When that play session extends to hours, weeks and months, it’s onerous to think of “replay” as “rolling another class”.)

I played Titan Quest through as a Sage, a Hunter/Storm ranged DPS machine.  I used Hunter as my “main” class because arrows are infinite, and I could attack at range without burning through mana reserves.  I used Storm to augment that plan, buffing my offense with elemental punch, making my basic ranged attacks sufficiently powerful to kill all but the hardiest enemies long before they got to melee range to bother me.  Ranged enemies went down even quicker since I had great range and high damage… and they were typically slow casters with little defense.  I had a blast, but once I finished the game, I wanted to try another class build.

I didn’t want to spend the time grinding through the lower levels of the game building up a new character, though, playing old content just to see how another class would approach it.  So I found a little program called the TQ Defiler.  It let me edit my character, changing his class to anything I felt like.  I would not have played the game as much as I did without that freedom.  In my younger, stupider days I might have jumped back in with another character from the very start, but with life constantly intruding on my gaming time, I don’t have that luxury any more.  Of course, the TQ Defiler also allows for other sorts of hacks which make the game much easier or harder, but the part that interested me was the class swapper.  There is a “respec” option in the game, but it only allows you to change the way you’ve allocated your skill points, not change your class or secondary, and the cost in game currency increases with each use of the service.

Why?  What does that add to the game?  “Replay value”?  In my time-constrained world, playing through the same content with a different approach is pretty low on the replay value scale.  Yes, it’s technically “replay”, but the bulk of that sort of replay is just repetition, which never sits well with me.  (Mostly because DIKU design is very repetitious to start with; repeating the repetition just gets too stupid too fast.)

“Class identity”?  Thing is, if you have the option to change, you don’t lose that identity; those classes and builds are still there, you just gain the ability to make more choices in the game.  Remember, I like choices.  Purist players in a freeform system will always have the choice to stick with their initial choice, but it doesn’t work the other way; those who want freedom can’t drag it out of a class system without a hex editor.  (Which is effectively making the game behave in ways it wasn’t built for, but arguably should have been.  That sort of hacking doesn’t work in MMOs, since the admins tend to frown on it, banhammer in hand… understandably so, if disappointingly so.)

In a freeform system with Autopilot, you could let the Templates handle the minutae of maintaining a “class identity”, and just go ahead and play your class.  Those who want to do something more freeform could use the Autopilot a bit, or just go all in and do their own thing.

Guild Wars already has something somewhat like this with their Build Templates that you can save and load when you do your “free respec” thing in any town.  They are shorthand precooked “builds” that can be used at any time you would respec, so you can quickly change from a “farming” build to a “questing” or PvP build.  You can also change around your “attribute” numbers willy nilly, to accent your particular build of the moment.

I’m just extending the concept to push that freedom into more aspects of the game, all the way down to the most basic of character customization, the “class” choice.  I’ll reiterate, though, I’m talking about adding choices, and adding an Autopilot for those who want the more constrained experience.  This system wouldn’t destroy the ability to make a killer Rogue or buffalicious Tank, it would augment the game as a whole to allow for more variety and player ownership of one of the few things they truly can control; their character or team.  And yes, this design ethos would apply equally well to a Tactics team-based game as to an MMO.  Any game that uses classes or jobs could benefit from this sort of freedom.

I know, some people wouldn’t like that sort of freedom.  Some want strict predictability and/or relatively simple decision making.  That’s the point of the Autopilot, to let those players just get on with playing the game.  For those who want to dig deeper, though, why not let them do so?

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Tired of grinding through the early WoW game? Combine the Refer-a-Friend XP boost with these items,

Exquisite Sunderseer Mantle

Exceptional Stormshroud Shoulders

and you can ignore the WoW Old World quicker than ever before!

(more…)

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World of Warcraft has been compared to a theme park before.  The static world, colorful presentation and “gaming on rails” all lead to easy comparisons.  I won’t belabor those elements, since it’s enough for the sake of this article to frame the game in a theme park comparison.

No, what’s important to me at this point is the cost to the patron, and how the analogy can be used to illustrate the concept of microtransactions. (more…)

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